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Karl Barth, Natural Revelation, and Its Implications for Ethics

November 20, 2020
By Stephen J. Wellum

Editor’s note: The following essay appears in the Fall 2020 issue of Eikon.

Historically, natural or general revelation has played an important role in Christian theology and the grounding of a normative ethic. For example, appeal has been made to God’s creation order to warrant such important “natural law” truths as the sanctity of human life and the normativity of heterosexual, monogamous marriage. Although in the best of theology, natural revelation, and its corollary natural laws drawn from creation order, was never viewed as completely independent of special revelation, it has played a significant role in establishing the moral content that all people know and have access to. Thus, appeal to natural revelation is important on a number of fronts, especially the doing of Christian ethics, a point I will return to below.

However, for a number of reasons, the role that natural revelation has served in theology, especially in ethics, has come under severe criticism. Since the Enlightenment our age has grown more secular as it has experienced various worldview shifts away from historic Christian theology and morphed from views associated with modernism and now postmodernism.[1] In these shifts away from theology, there has been a corresponding loss of the epistemological warrant for a normative ethic. Much of these shifts are also linked to the embrace of an evolutionary view of origins, which has directly undercut the ground for universal moral norms.

In theology, there have also been shifts away from historic Christianity and the place natural law has served in theology and ethics. Specifically, Karl Barth’s influence has been strong.[2] For a variety of reasons, Barth introduced skepticism regarding the ability of humans to know God from nature and through natural means. Barth famously affirmed a strong, “Nien!” to natural theology, and he argued that humans have no inherent or “natural” capacity to know God apart from God’s free and gracious decision to reveal himself to us in Christ. As such, Barth denied that humans, especially fallen humans, have any direct epistemic access to God and universal laws of morality by our observation of the world. As people have accepted Barth’s view, appeal to natural revelation and natural law to establish a normative ethic has fallen by the wayside.

In this article, I reflect on Barth’s rejection of natural revelation in three steps. First, I describe why he rejected natural revelation, given his overall theology. Second, I offer some reasons why Barth’s view ought to be rejected. Third, I conclude with some reflections on the importance of natural revelation for theology and especially Christian ethics.

Karl Barth and His Rejection of Natural Revelation

Barth is a complicated theologian. One cannot understand his rejection of natural revelation and aversion to natural theology apart from grasping his overall theology, theological method, and the context in which he lived and wrote. In what follows, I briefly sketch a few key themes from Barth’s theology in order to explain why he rejected natural revelation and went in a different direction from previous Christian thought on this issue.

Barth’s Theological Approach

Barth’s theology has been construed as a Christocentric theism.[3] For Barth, God’s being is revealed in his acts. Specifically, God’s being is revealed in the various acts that comprise the life and ministry of Jesus Christ,[4] historically what has been associated with special revelation. So in common with historic theology, for God to be known he must reveal himself. However, what is different than previous theology is that Barth denies that natural/general revelation is also God’s revelation of himself, and that both are necessary to know God, the self, and the world. In many ways, Barth’s theology is the reversal of Immanuel Kant — as “reason within the limits of revelation alone,”[5] but for Barth, it is only special revelation. For Barth, there is no knowledge of God without faith, and conversely, no faith without knowledge.

In this regard, Barth was influenced by the work of Anselm, although Anselm allowed for the reality of natural revelation.[6] For Anselm, theology was “faith seeking understanding,” but not as a matter of requiring proof but rather desiring to understand what we already believe. In Barth’s application of Anselm, faith begins by hearing God’s Word, especially God’s Word identified with Christ. Apart from the special revelation of God’s Word, theology is not possible. But thankfully, Barth affirms, God has found a way to us in Christ.

Barth’s more mature understanding of theology is a development from the “early Barth.”[7] Although there is debate regarding how much development occurred, Barth’s earlier theology is characterized by a “dialectical theology of crisis.”[8] In other words, God could only be spoken about in a paradoxical fashion so that each affirmation about God must be balanced with a negation to account for God’s “wholly otherness.” Humans, in and of themselves, have no natural capacity to know God and are thus incapable of making direct assertions about him since God is “wholly other” and hidden.

However, in his work on Anselm, Barth found a way to view theology as saying something more positive about God in light of God’s unique act in Christ.[9] Theology’s task, then, is not to establish the object of inquiry on rational and common grounds independent of God’s Word; instead theology begins with God’s free and gracious initiative to reveal himself to us in Christ. In fact, all that we know about God’s action in creation and providence is due to God’s self-revelation in Christ.[10]

Barth’s theology was a marked contrast from classical liberalism.[11] Instead of thinking of some natural or common “point of contact” between God’s revelation and humans, God must first initiate to speak to us. Theology is not warranted because it establishes truths from religious experience, world history, or the natural order. We do not know God from a cognitive ability in us; we only know God because he has spoken to us by his Word.[12] As John Webster notes, instead of working from “abstract metaphysical or anthropological foundations for theology”[13] — an “analogy of being” — Barth moves from Christ to speak properly about creation and humans.

However, Barth’s view not only differs from liberalism but also from Protestant orthodoxy. In denying that humans have any direct knowledge of God from creation due to our lack of any “natural” or “innate” capacity to know God, Barth also rejected a legitimate role for God’s revelation in nature and creation.[14] Unlike Reformation theology that insisted on the importance of both natural and special revelation for our knowledge of God, humans, and the world, Barth rejected this for his understanding of God’s Word given to us in Christ.[15]

But what exactly did Barth mean by God’s Word? Historically, God’s speech and revelation is given to us in creation (natural revelation), Scripture and Christ (special revelation). However, for Barth, the Word of God takes on a different cast, which helps explain some of his aversion to natural revelation. For Barth, God’s Word “is no mere thing; it is the living, personal and free God,”[16] who not only communicates to us but who is never available to us directly. In other words, God’s Word, as Webster reminds us, “is not a deposit of truth upon which the church can draw, or a set of statements which can be consulted. The Word of God is an act which God undertakes. God’s Word is that complex but unitary event in which God has spoken, speaks and will speak, an event which encounters us through the human means of Scripture and its proclamation in the church.”[17] In fact, God’s Word has three forms: the Word revealed, the Word written, and the Word preached.[18] Let us look at each of these in turn.

Barth’s Conception of the Word of God

First, there is God’s Word revealed, namely Jesus Christ, who is God’s direct and objective revelation, the Word made flesh.[19] In this sense, revelation is both a historical and unrepeatable event[20] and “once-for-all.”[21] “Revelation in fact does not differ from the person of Jesus Christ nor from the reconciliation accomplished by Him,”[22] and it is to him that Scripture witnesses.

Second, there is God’s Word written, namely Scripture, which is an indirect revelation that bears witness to Christ.[23] Scripture is not directly God’s Word since it is only a witness to Christ. Barth insists: “A witness is not absolutely identical with that to which it witnesses. . . . In the Bible we meet with human words written in human speech, and in these words, and therefore by means of them, we hear of the lordship of the triune God.”[24] However, even though Scripture is distinguished from God’s objective Word, namely, Christ, the Bible can become revelation by God’s sovereign and free choice in the event of witnessing to Christ.[25] For Barth, then, Scripture is a human, fallible word that consists of human attempts that indirectly witness to Christ. Not even the Bible can recollect God’s past revelation. Only as God acts, only as God causes the Bible to be his Word, only as he speaks through it, can we say the Bible is God’s Word.[26]

Third, there is God’s Word preached,[27] which like Scripture, is also an indirect revelation. In our proclamation of Scripture, God acts and bears witness to Christ. And when God acts to do so, we not only hear the preached word as God’s Word but also experience God with us.

In summarizing Barth’s view, we discover that we only have access to Christ through indirect means: God’s Word written and proclaimed. But even in these two forms, we only have Christ due to God’s free decision to act and reveal him to us. God’s revelation of himself is not ours for the taking; it only comes to us as an event by God’s free decision to act and make it so.[28]

Barth’s emphasis on divine freedom is important. He is emphatic that God’s revelatory action must be free.[29] On the one hand, God by nature “cannot be unveiled to men, self-unveiling means that God does what men themselves cannot do in any sense or in any way.”[30] In fact, in Christ, Barth insists, God takes the initiative to make himself the object of human thought and speech by taking form, “and this taking form is His self-unveiling.”[31]

On the other hand, Barth insists that even in the form God assumes in his self-revelation, especially thinking of the incarnation, God is still free to reveal and not to reveal himself. The form does not take God’s place since God’s being is never there for the taking. Instead, it must be actively and graciously given. The alternative, Barth thinks, is a denial of God’s freedom. For if the form is identified with God’s revelation, humanity would then be able to control God since God’s Word would be universally present and ascertainable to man and thus become a mere object of human inquiry.[32] This is why, as Kevin Vanhoozer reminds us, “Barth is reluctant to attach the predicate ‘divine’ to any other creaturely reality, even the Scriptures, for fear of detracting from God’s being in the event of Jesus Christ: to suggest that some worldly object or activity is ‘the same as’ God’s Word is basically to say that it is God.”[33]

For this reason, Barth does not identify Scripture as God’s Word. He is concerned that such an identification will compromise God’s freedom and sovereignty to act whenever and wherever he so chooses, and thus to place God under our control.[34] God as the Lord, Barth insists, has free control over the wording of Holy Scripture. He writes:

He [God] can use it or not use it. He can use it in this way or in that way. He can choose a new wording beyond that of Holy Scripture. What Holy Scripture proclaims as His Word can be proclaimed in a new wording as His Word so long as it is He Himself who speaks in this wording. Furthermore, the personal character of God’s Word means, not its deverbalising, but the posing of an absolute barrier against reducing its wording to a human system or using its wording to establish and construct a human system. It would not be God’s faithfulness but His unfaithfulness to us if He allowed us to use His Word in this way. This would mean His allowing us to gain control over His Word, to fit it in with our own designs, and thus to shut up ourselves against Him to our own ruin. God’s faithfulness to His Church consists in His availing Himself of His freedom to come to us Himself in His Word and in His reserving to Himself the freedom to do this again and again.[35]

Thus, for Scripture to become revelation for us, God must act freely and graciously. Only by God’s free decision does Scripture become God’s Word.[36] As to when, where, and how Scripture shows itself to us in this event as the Word of God, we do not decide, but the Word of God himself decides.[37] For Barth, to say that God is the supremely free God is to say, as John Frame notes, that “God does not place his words on paper. For God to inspire words in this way would compromise his freedom and sovereignty; God himself could not abrogate such words once he has spoken them.”[38] Furthermore, because God is the one who acts whenever and wherever he chooses, inspiration is not a unique divine action in the past that guarantees the truth of the text since this too would compromise God’s freedom to use or not use the text as his Word. Yes, God has used Scripture in the past to bear witness to Christ, and thus, we believe that God will use Scripture in the future. But to identify God’s Word with Scripture would be to displace Christ and to force God to honor a word spoken in the past. Even worse: it would mean that those who “have” the texts in their possession would then have God under their control.

Barth’s Rejection of Natural Revelation

Barth’s rejection of natural revelation and theology is similar to his rejection of the identification of Scripture as God’s Word. For Barth, if humans have a “natural” or “innate” capacity to know God, then God’s freedom is compromised. Why? Because it assumes that we have a knowledge of God apart from God’s free and gracious activity in Christ; it identifies something “creaturely” with God. And if this is so, then revelation is no longer God’s gracious and free choice to make himself known in Christ. Instead revelation is a “natural” given that humans can use to control and manipulate God. As Barth asserts, “the logic of the matter demands that, even if we only lend out a little finger to natural theology, there necessarily follows the denial of the revelation of God in Jesus Christ.”[39] Thus, any revelation, including natural revelation that is not mediated through Christ, is rejected.[40] Furthermore, given our sin, there is no point of contact in us, other than what God creates by his gracious action in Christ.[41] For Barth, natural revelation and its counterpart, natural theology, is a vain attempt to know God apart from Christ.

Thus, just as Barth has a problem identifying Scripture as God’s Word due to his concern that such an identification compromises God’s freedom and it places God under our control, a similar point is made about God’s revelation of himself in creation. Humans do not know God from creation apart from Christ, and God’s decision to make creation real in Christ.[42] This is why, as James Cassidy explains, “creation is not the first word in theology. It is not the first of God’s acts ad extra. There is a prior work of God: the covenant of grace in Jesus Christ… the covenant of grace has a logical priority over creation, but it can never be separated from creation—or rather, creation from it. In this way, Barth can speak in terms that make Jesus Christ not only the Creator but the creature as well.”[43] This is also why Barth rejects any idea of a “natural” revelation apart from Christ. All of creation must be viewed in light of humanity’s gracious election in Christ,[44] and as Michael Horton reminds us, “there is no point in eternity or time where we encounter God apart from the redeeming grace of Jesus Christ.”[45] In fact, Barth has problems thinking of humans as ever existing in a pre-fall condition, which is also tied to his rejection of a historic Adam. “To say man,” Barth asserts, “is to say creature and sin, and this means limitation and suffering.”[46] For this reason, as Horton reminds us, “the distinction between pre-fall and post-fall plays no role in his theology.”[47] Given Barth’s view, it is not surprising that there is no place for thinking of creation prior to the fall and prior to grace.

As applied to ethics, Barth does not appeal to God’s design in the created order to ground ethical norms, but instead “the task of theological ethics is to understand the Word of God as the command of God,”[48] which at every point is defined in terms of Christ. We cannot appeal to “natural law” as if “nature” is something independent of God’s specific revelation in Christ. We cannot speak of natural law as providing universal rights and wrong; ethics must not be built on human reasoning independent of God’s revelation in Christ, otherwise it becomes arbitrary, vacuous, and without grounds. To be fair to Barth, as one who opposed Hitler’s rise and liberal theology’s appeal to natural law to justify German ideology, we can understand how a misuse of natural law needed to be countered. But even so, Barth was very reluctant to speak of creation order independent of God’s revelation in Christ, which meant that any appeal to natural law for ethics was rejected.

Yet, later in his life, Barth did think that God’s revelation in Christ could come through “secular parables of truth.” As David VanDrunen explains, “True words may be spoken in the world and not merely in the Bible or in the church. Jesus Christ, however, is the only Word of God and hence he delimits all other words, whether in the Bible, church, or world.”[49] These secular forms of truth must be tested in light of God’s Word in Christ, yet as with Scripture, they are only indirect, and thus never valid for all places and times. By this means, Barth allows for the created order to witness to its Creator as seen in Christ,[50] but “there is no continuing voice of creation that is independent of God’s work in Christ, so there is no common, preserving grace in the creation that is independent of it.”[51] Where one might expect that Barth opens a door for natural revelation is, in fact, shut. For Barth, the only true point of contact we have with God and creation is due to God’s electing action in Christ to unite creation and redemption in him.

Problems with Barth’s Rejection of Natural Revelation

Barth’s rejection of natural revelation, along with his overall theology, poses a number of problems. Let me offer at least five problems with Barth’s view.

First, it simply does not follow either for Scripture or God’s revelation of himself in creation that a true knowledge of God from these sources would compromise God’s freedom. For example, in relation to Scripture, as Frame correctly notes, surely “there is something odd about saying that an inerrant canonical text places God under our control;”[52] Scripture never draws any such inference. In fact, Scripture teaches, as Frame observes:

God makes covenant promises, by which he binds himself. In Christ, all these promises are Yes and Amen (2 Cor. 1:20). God cannot lie or deny himself (2 Tim. 2:13; Tit. 1:2; Heb. 6:18). Therefore, his Word abides forever (Isa. 40:8). These divine words constitute a body of truth, a “tradition” (2 Thess. 2:15; 3:6), a faith that was “once for all entrusted to the saints” and for which we are to contend earnestly (Jude 3). . . . Moreover, the biblical writers do not reason that these divine promises compromise God’s sovereignty! On the contrary, God’s sovereignty is expressed through the irresistible power of his Word. . . . God’s Word is an instrument of his sovereign rule. It is precisely the case that his sovereignty would be compromised if he did not speak such words.”[53]

The same is also true regarding God’s revelation in creation. Divine freedom does not necessitate that if God chooses to create a world according to his eternal plan, and that knowledge of him is revealed in creation, that somehow God is now under our control.[54] No doubt, Barth’s concern that natural theology can subsume God under some philosophical scheme of our own choosing is a concern, but it simply does not follow that given God’s free decision to create and act in the world that the world that he made is not revelatory of him. In fact, Scripture teaches the opposite, which leads to the next point of criticism.

Second, Scripture teaches that the triune God who has planned from eternity, created in time, and rules over his world is revealed in what he has made (Genesis 1–2; Ps. 19:1–6; Acts 17:22–31; Rom. 1:18–32).[55] From Genesis to Revelation, Scripture teaches that God testifies to himself through the natural world that he created, sustains, and rules (Acts 14:17; Rom. 1:20), and through the human conscience (Rom. 1:32). The knowledge of God in creation is best viewed as an effect of divine revelation, not an independent discovery or deduction of humans.[56] For this reason, belief in the God of Scripture is inescapable, and all people are held reasonable for not knowing God due to the clarity of God’s revelation of himself in creation (Rom. 1:18–20). All created reality is inherently revelational of God and his moral will. In fact, God created humans to know him and to use our minds and our faculties to glorify him (Prov. 1:7). Even though our sin leads to a suppression of the truth, God is still clearly known from creation, but God must act in sovereign grace to remove our suppression of the truth, to give us new hearts and faith in Christ. Thus, a right use of reason depends on the Spirit-illuminated Word in order to acknowledge the glory of our Creator in his creation. However, rational arguments can and must be made from creation to all people, yet these arguments do not ultimately function independent of Scripture. Yet, appeal to what we have in common, namely, the created order and our common creation, is important for theology and especially ethics. Despite our sin and suppression of the truth, a knowledge of God’s moral demand is written on the heart regardless of whether we acknowledge it or not.

In fact, if we read Romans 1 properly, the challenge of God’s revelation of himself in nature is that people cannot think in a warranted way without acknowledging God as Creator and Lord. Paul teaches that the created order is a conduit of constant, inescapable, information about God: all people possess an actual knowledge of him at the outset of their reasoning, which allows for the possible use of evidence, reason, and accounting for the universal moral sense that all people possess. God’s revelation is everywhere, and apart from him, the basis for a warranted human knowledge along with moral norms becomes difficult to sustain. Thus, in ethics, appeal to what people “know” from creation is not vacuous but crucial since all people in all places (Ps. 19:1–4), even in their sin, know God and something of his moral demand from what God has created. Barth’s view simply does not account for the biblical teaching on natural revelation.

Third, Barth’s Christocentric focus is admirable, but reductionistic in scope. For example, one cannot make sense of who Christ is apart from the backdrop of natural revelation. In many ways, Christ is presented to us in Scripture in light of God’s revelation of himself in creation and human nature. This is why it is best to say that God intended for natural and special revelation to function together. In fact, even before the fall, Adam could only interpret nature aright in connection with and in the light of divine speech, as evidenced by the divine command given to him (Gen. 2:15–17). Adam, as a creature and image-bearer, needed to hear God’s direct speech that supplemented and interpreted God’s revelation in nature. And especially after the fall, Adam needed a saving promise (Gen. 3:15) — a promise that could never have been deduced or inferred from natural revelation. Redemption required a divine Word and divine actions. Nevertheless, natural revelation, rightly understood through the “spectacles of Scripture” is not only of tremendous value but absolutely necessary to understand special revelation since it serves as its backdrop. This is why there is a mutual relationship and inter-dependence of natural revelation and special revelation. One without the other is insufficient.

Furthermore, even in thinking about God’s revelation in Christ, Scripture presents the incarnation by placing Jesus within the OT narrative that begins with God the Creator and humans as image-bearers and covenant creatures (e.g., Heb. 2:5–18; cf. use of Psalm 8). For example, when Paul speaks of Christ at Athens, he starts with the Creator-creature distinction given in creation (Acts 17:24–26) and then unpacks who humans are in Adam, thus illustrating how natural revelation undergirds special revelation.[57] As Vanhoozer nicely reminds us: “Jesus Christ reveals God neither de novo nor ex nihilo since his identity is ‘inextricably tied up’ with the identity of the God of Israel,”[58] that is first given in creation. Or, as Keith Johnson observes, Barth’s view leads to the unfortunate conclusion that, if words and concepts derived from the created order have “no intrinsic connection between their normal use and their use with respect to God, then there is no way to know what creaturely words and concepts actually mean when they are applied to God.”[59] In other words, apart from some intrinsic connection between concepts from creation (natural revelation) and then applied to Christ, “human talk about God is functionally equivocal,”[60] which is a serious problem.

Fourth, Barth fails sufficiently to distinguish Christ as the eternal Son, the second person of the Godhead, who is the Creator and Lord, from the incarnate Son. As the divine Son, he is the Creator of the universe along with the Father and Spirit (John 1:1–3; 1 Cor. 8:6; Col. 1:15–17; Heb. 1:1–3). As such, as Steven Duby reminds us, “there can be no separation of Christ’s work in nature and in supernatural grace.”[61] What this entails is that the Son, along with the Father and Spirit, is the source of natural revelation as well, so that the knowledge we receive from nature and Scripture is grounded in the initiative of the triune God in and through the Son.[62] Barth is simply mistaken to appeal to the knowledge of God by grace and through special revelation as different from the knowledge of God through nature, or not mediated by the Son. Both forms of revelation are from the triune God, mediated through the Son, and the knowledge of God in creation is not “independent” of Christ, although both forms of revelation are necessary.

On this point, Barth stands against historic theology, especially Reformation and Reformed orthodoxy.[63] In Reformation theology, a distinction is made between God’s work of creation and his work of redemption, even though Christ is Lord of both in relation to the Father and Spirit (Col. 1:15–20). However, Barth flattens these two orders, thus denying the reality of natural revelation tied to the triune God’s work of creation in and through the divine Son. As a result, he dismisses the reality of an independent existence of the creation order prior to sin, which even precipitates the need for the work of the incarnate Son. He also dismisses any notion of natural law based on creation order prior to redemptive grace, and instead collapses creation and providence under the category of redemption, hence his rejection of natural theology. But Barth’s view is untenable according to the Scriptural teaching, which leads to the last point.

Fifth, Barth cannot account for the Bible’s overall biblical-theological storyline of creation, fall, redemption, and new creation. For Barth, creation is not a biblical category in its own right that was created good and revelatory of God. As Duby notes, “it seems that in the logic of Barth’s framework creation as such is not good without the help of salvific grace.”[64] Since creation is viewed in light of the incarnate Son and redemptive grace, creation is brought into being and upheld by saving grace, but this is not what Scripture teaches. Again, as Duby observes, “the scriptural narrative of creation, sin, and redemption, together with the emphasis that God’s gracious work has a restorative character (e.g., Acts 3:21; Rom. 12:2; Eph. 4:24; Col. 3:10), requires us to confess an original goodness of created being as such, a fall into sin that is not ingredient in human nature as such, and a redemptive recovery of something (i.e., human nature rightly ordered to God) that once existed and was good in its own right.”[65]

However, Barth’s view undercuts all of this since it does not distinguish properly between creation order, a historic fall into sin, and God’s work of redemption centered in Christ. Barth has no way of thinking of creation as revelatory of God, along with a creation order prior to the fall and independent of redemption. As such, he loses the ability to think of God’s ordering of creation as a norm or standard for ethics in terms of what God created humans to be, what is for our good, and how God expects us to live as his image-bearers. Horton nicely captures the problem of Barth’s view: “In this view [Barth’s], history — in fact, creation itself — cannot be the theater in which a genuine drama unfolds, because creation, fall, and redemption are not successive events but different aspects of the same event.”[66] By subsuming everything under God’s self-revelation in Christ — including natural revelation and the creation order — Barth has undercut the Bible’s storyline and missed how Scripture distinguishes between the original creation order, the impact of sin, and God’s plan of redemption to restore what was lost in the fall. By doing so, Barth’s view has undermined the concept and need for natural revelation, and made problematic the concept of natural law.

The Importance of Natural Revelation for Christian Ethics

Given that natural revelation is a reality, what, then, is its importance for theology and especially Christian ethics? As we reflect on this question, it is important to never artificially separate natural from special revelation. As already noted, in Christian theology they go hand-in-hand. Both before and after the fall, Adam was to interpret nature and himself dependent on divine speech (Gen. 2:15–17). Adam, as a creature and image-bearer, needed both God’s revelation in creation and God’s direct speech to understand God, self, and the world correctly. And this is especially true after the fall since Adam (along with all humanity) not only now suppresses the truth of creation, but also needs a saving promise which does not arise from nature but instead God’s sovereign initiative and action to redeem us.[67]

Nevertheless, natural revelation is necessary to know God and ourselves. Natural revelation is not sufficient in itself, nor is it sufficient for salvation (Rom. 1:18–32). But natural revelation is important to reveal clearly who God is and his moral demands on all people. Natural revelation, then, because it reflects God’s eternal plan that he has enacted by creating the world, is truly revelatory of him and as such it carries with it divine authority, hence the reason why it leaves us without excuse (Rom. 1:20). As such, what is known from natural revelation and Scripture is foundational for establishing a normative ground for ethics and human obligation.

As God’s demands are known from natural revelation, they also require the truth of special revelation to make them cogent; they are not sufficient in themselves. For example, it is difficult to make an argument for birth control merely on the natural connection between sexual relations and reproduction since as Frame notes, “[t]hat connection obviously exists, but the moral conclusion is not a necessary one. Indeed the argument (like many natural-law arguments) is a naturalistic fallacy, an attempt to reason from fact to obligation, from ‘is’ to ‘ought.’”[68] In the end, persuasive moral reasoning requires more than what we observe from nature alone. Yet this does not minimize the importance of natural revelation since special revelation requires it and cannot be understood apart from it.

In addition, Scripture grounds moral obligation, and thus, natural law, in the norm of creation tied to natural revelation. As Michael Hill notes, it is the original creation with its revealed goals or purposes which “provides us with the basis for determining what is morally good.”[69] This point is especially significant today in ethical discussions over the nature and dignity of humans, the proper use of our sexuality, marriage, the value of labor, and so on. Since all people are creatures of God, living in the world God has made and surrounded by God’s revelation of himself in nature, we can appeal to what is known from nature to warrant what is good, true, and beautiful. Despite human sin, there is still a point of contact with people because of our common creation and living in God’s world. And what is in common with all people, despite our sin, is God’s created order that still retains something of its original purpose even post-fall. No doubt, natural revelation is never enough on its own since it requires a Christian theistic understanding of the world. This is evident in how evolutionary theory has taken hold in our society thus rendering implausible a natural law ethic. But this simply reminds us that as we argue for moral norms on the basis of natural law, we must also argue for an entire Christian view of the world. As we do, we continue to appeal to people as image-bearers who know the truth, despite their sin and suppression of the truth. We can appeal to what they already know with the hope that God will use our arguments to lead them to faith in Christ.

Let us think about some examples. First, think about arguments for the sanctity of human life. Given our common creation as image-bearers, we can appeal to people’s intuitive sense that human life is precious. From here we can argue for the sanctity of human life and offer reasons to oppose abortion, infanticide, and euthanasia. Or, think of a second example related to sexual ethics. We can observe how humans are designed along with the complementarity of the sexes. From here we can argue for a proper use of our sexuality functioning within the permanent, covenant relationship of heterosexual marriage. We can argue that all misuses of our sexuality, whether it is fornication, adultery, divorce, homosexuality, bestiality, and even polygamy are distortions of who humans are as designed as male and female, and what we know is best for a well-functioning human society. Obviously, none of these arguments stand alone. But for even those who reject them, we can appeal to what they know despite their rejection of the truth, and the sad consequences that often result when people depart from the natural design of humanity.

As the church, we live in challenging days. One of the challenges we face is confronting a society that finds itself in moral and ethical confusion. As the church, we are called to proclaim the truth of our triune God as he has revealed himself both in nature and Scripture. In our proclamation and defense of the gospel, natural revelation has a vital role to play in this task, especially in our establishing of a normative Christian ethic. The rejection of natural revelation by theologians like Karl Barth is unwarranted, so the church needs to return again to thinking through and expounding the truth of God from God’s work in creation and redemption.

Stephen J. Wellum is Professor of Christian Theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.

[1] See Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007).

[2] On Barth’s influence for the unfavorable use of natural theology and law, see Stephen J. Grabill, Rediscovering the Natural Law in Reformed Theological Ethics (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2006), 3–7, 21–53.

[3] See Kevin J. Vanhoozer, “God’s Mighty Speech-Acts,” in A Pathway into Holy Scripture, ed., Philip E. Satterthwaite and David F. Wright (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994), 163.

[4] George Hunsinger, How to Read Karl Barth: The Shape of His Theology (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991), 30, calls this “actualism” in Barth’s theology. Hunsinger contends that actualism is “the most distinctive and perhaps the most difficult of the motifs.” But so pervasive is this motif that “Barth’s whole theology might well be described as a theology of active relations.” For example, when Barth wants to describe God, he says that God’s being is always a being in act. “Negatively, this means that God’s being cannot be described apart from the basic act in which God lives. . . . Positively, the description means that God lives in a set of active relations. The being of God in act is a being in love and freedom.”

[5] Hunsinger, How to Read Karl Barth, 49. Hunsinger labels this “rationalism” in Barth’s theology (see pp. 49–64).

[6] See Barth’s work on Anselm: Anselm: Fides Quaerens Intellectum (Richmond, VA: John Knox Press, 1960). Barth described his work on Anselm as “the one written with the greatest satisfaction.” Yet in America, Barth laments, “it is doubtless not read at all and in Europe it certainly is the least read of my works” (see Barth, How I Changed My Mind [Richmond, VA: John Knox Press, 1966], 43).

[7] There is a lot of debate on this point. Hans Urs von Balthasar, The Theology of Karl Barth: Exposition and Interpretation, trans. Edward T. Oakes (San Francisco: Ignatius, 1992) argued for an “early” and “later” Barth. By contrast, Bruce L. McCormack denies this shift in Barth (Karl Barth’s Critically Realistic Dialectical Theology: Its Genesis and Development 1909–1936 [Oxford: Clarendon, 1995]). For a similar view to McCormack yet more nuanced, see John Webster, Barth (New York: Continuum, 2000), 22–24; cf. idem., “Barth, Karl (1886-1968),” New Dictionary of Theology, 2nd ed., ed. Martin Davie, et al. (Downers Grove: IVP, 2016), 103–7.

[8] See Heinz Zahrnt, The Question of God: Protestant Theology in the Twentieth Century (London: Collins, 1969), 21–34.

[9] See Webster, Karl Barth, 22–24, 51–53; cf. David F. Ford, “Barth’s Interpretation of the Bible,” in Karl Barth: Studies in His Theological Method, ed. S. W. Sykes (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1979), 58. One implication of Barth’s more constructive method is that instead of moving from the general (philosophical systems tied to natural reason) to the particular (theology), Barth now does theology from the particular to the general. Cf. Hunsinger, How to Read Karl Barth, 32–35; Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, ed. G. W. Bromiley and T. F. Torrance. 4 vols. in 13 parts (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1936-1975), II:1, 602 (hereafter CD).

[10] See CD, I:1, 150.

[11] Barth’s early theology stood in direct opposition to the classic liberalism he had been taught. On Barth’s thought and time period, see Eberhard Jungel, Karl Barth: A Theological Legacy (Philadelphia, PA: Westminster Press, 1986), 22-104. Barth argued that classical liberalism had reduced theology to anthropology, and turned divine revelation into natural theology. Liberalism’s theology began “from below” instead of “from above.” Barth, however, in his reading of Romans discovered the self-revealing God in the strange world of the Bible (see Karl Barth, “The Strange New World Within the Bible,” in The Word of God and the Word of Man [Pilgrim Press, 1928]). As a result, Barth no longer focused on man and his belief, his piety, his religion, and his culture. Instead, Barth focused on God, the totaliter aliter (to borrow a phrase from Kierkegaard), and his revelation. But in this early stage, Barth viewed theology more negatively—as the “impossible possibility” (see Jungel, Karl Barth, 61) — due to God’s “otherness” and human’s finitude and fallenness.

[12] See Webster, Karl Barth, 53–55. Also see Kevin J. Vanhoozer, Remythologizing Theology: Divine Action, Passion, and Authorship (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 198–208.

[13] Webster, “Barth, Karl,” 105.

[14] On this point, see Steven J. Duby, God in Himself: Scripture, Metaphysics, and the Task of Christian Theology (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2019), 108–12.

[15] See Keith L. Johnson, “Natural Revelation in Creation and Covenant,” in Thomas Aquinas and Karl Barth: An Unofficial Catholic-Protestant Dialogue, ed. Bruce L. McCormack and Thomas Joseph White (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2013), 141–44; cf. Duby, God in Himself, 110.

[16] CD I:1, 198.

[17] Webster, Karl Barth, 55.

[18] See CD I:1, 88–124.

[19] See CD, I:2, 1–25.

[20] CD I:1, 116.

[21] CD I:2, 12.

[22] CD I:1, 119.

[23] See CD I:1, 99–111.

[24] CD 1:2, 463.

[25] On this point, see CD I:1, 112–13.

[26] See CD I:1, 109.

[27] See CD I:1, 88–99.

[28] See CD I:1, 149.

[29] Barth defines the Godhead in terms of freedom. He writes: “Godhead in the Bible means freedom, ontic and noetic autonomy” (CD I:1, 307). Also see Barth’s extensive treatment of this subject in CD II:1, 297–321. By ontic autonomy, Barth means that God alone is self-sufficient and unique as the source of his own being. That is why God is dependent upon, or in need of, no one. Moreover, by God’s noetic absoluteness, Barth simply means what he has asserted from the very beginning: God cannot be known except by and in his own acts of self-revelation.

[30] CD I:1, 315.

[31] CD I:1, 316.

[32] For a denial that the Word of God is universally present and ascertainable, see CD I:1, 158.

[33] Vanhoozer, Remythologizing Theology, 207.

[34] CD I:2, 527.

[35] CD I:1, 139. Also see CD I:2, 512–13.

[36] See CD I:2, 530.

[37] See CD I:2, 531.

[38] John M. Frame, “The Spirit and the Scriptures,” in Hermeneutics, Authority and Canon, ed. D. A. Carson and John Woodbridge (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1986), 222. Also see John Frame, “God and Biblical Language,” in God’s Inerrant Word, ed. J. W. Montgomery (Minneapolis, MN: Bethany House Publishers, 1974), 159–77.

[39] CD II:1, 173.

[40] See Hunsinger, How to Read Karl Barth, 96; cf. Grabill, Rediscovering the Natural Law in Reformed Theological Ethics, 29–30.

[41] On this point, see CD I:1, 236–41.

[42] See James J. Cassidy, God’s Time for Us: Barth’s Reconciliation of Eternity and Time in Jesus Christ (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2016), 55–100.

[43] Cassidy, God’s Time for Us, 60. Cf. Michael S. Horton, “Covenant, Election, and Incarnation,” in Karl Barth and American Evangelicalism, ed. Bruce L. McCormack and Clifford B. Anderson (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2011), 115–20.

[44] See David VanDrunen, Natural Law and the Two Kingdoms: A Study in the Development of Reformed Social Thought (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2010), 320–24.

[45] Horton, “Covenant, Election, and Incarnation,” 119.

[46] CD, IV:1, 131.

[47] Horton, “Covenant, Election, and Incarnation,” 134.

[48] CD III:4, 4.

[49] VanDrunen, Natural Law and the Two Kingdoms, 324; cf. CD IV:3:1, 97.

[50] CD IV:3:1, 139.

[51] VanDrunen, Natural Law and the Two Kingdoms, 325.

[52] Frame, “The Spirit and the Scriptures,” 223.

[53] Ibid.

[54] See Duby, God in Himself, 119–20.

[55] For a full discussion of natural revelation, see Joel R. Beeke and Paul M. Smalley, Reformed Systematic Theology: Revelation and God, vol. 1 (Wheaton: Crossway, 2019), 195–263.

[56] See Duby, God in Himself, 72–103.

[57] On this point, see my God the Son Incarnate (Wheaton: Crossway, 2016), 79–146.

[58] Vanhoozer, Remythologizing Theology, 418.

[59] Johnson, “Natural Revelation in Creation and Covenant,” 142–143.

[60] Johnson, “Natural Revelation in Creation and Covenant,” 143.

[61] Duby, God in Himself, 169.

[62] See Duby, God in Himself, 169–72.

[63] On this point, see VanDrunen, Natural Law and the Two Kingdoms, 343–47.

[64] Duby, God in Himself, 272.

[65] Duby, God in Himself, 272–73.

[66] Horton, “Covenant, Election, and Incarnation,” 133.

[67] On this point, see John M. Frame, The Doctrine of the Christian Life (Phillipsburg: P&R, 2008), 951–52.

[68] Frame, The Doctrine of the Christian Life, 954.

[69] Michael Hill, The How and Why of Love: An Introduction to Evangelical Ethics (Kingsford, Australia: Matthias Media, 2002), 66.

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